The last week must have been excruciating for the National Rifle Association and its leaders. They wisely decided to stay silent in the days after the Newtown massacre even though that meant ceding the national stage to its opponents, who subjected the group to withering and often unfair criticism as well as shamelessly exploiting the tragedy in order to resurrect gun control proposals that drew little or no interest during the election. But one week of silence wasn’t enough.
The speech delivered today by Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, was a memorable disaster and likely to do far more damage to its reputation than much of the sniping aimed at the NRA in the previous days. The problem was not so much substance as its tone, as the group’s leader delivered a hectoring lecture to the nation that managed to make a good idea—more security at schools—sound nutty. In the course of his rant, he also managed to make it sound as if the only way to defend the Second Amendment is to throw the First under the bus as he sought to blame the entertainment industry for gun violence. The group that generally opposes registration of firearms also called for a national registry of the mentally ill. Though LaPierre was right to predict the liberal news media would depict his statements as extreme, the group did itself no favor by jumping back into the debate so soon with a presentation that was bereft of any sense that the ground had shifted during their hiatus out of the public eye. What was needed most from the NRA was a reasonable tone, not attempts to provide different scapegoats for the public’s anger over Newtown such as the gun-free school zones or video games. Another week or even a month of radio silence from the NRA would have been better for its cause than this.
The substance as well as the tone of his remarks appalled many reporters and media figures, who started sniping at LaPierre on Twitter. But there was nothing wrong with advocating for more armed security guards at schools. He happened to be right when he said the only thing that can stop a “bad guy” with a gun was a good guy with one. But his trenchant observation that gun-free school zones are open invitations to armed lunatics came out as sounding as if those who proposed such areas had the blood of the children of Newtown on their hands. That seemed of a piece with the smears shouted by Code Pink members who attempted to disrupt the presser by shouting that the NRA was guilty of killing children. Doing so distracted attention from what could be a reasonable proposal.
LaPierre’s attempt to pivot the discussion away from guns to video games was equally disingenuous. The prevalence of violence in our popular culture is a real problem, but it ill behooves a group founded on a belief that the Second Amendment must be preserved at all costs to take stands that sounded as if it was willing to hypocritically sacrifice the First with its protection of free speech.
The same applies to their talk about a national registry of mentally ill persons. Incidents like Newtown are more the product of mental illness than inadequate gun legislation, but the NRA seemed to be advocating exactly the sort of Big Brother government measure that it would fight to do the death where it to be applied to weapons.
What was needed from the NRA was a signal that it was prepared to react to the outrage about Newtown with reasoned suggestions about keeping any guns out of the hands of people like Adam Lanza. Instead, it sallied forth with its usual arguments about why any form of gun control or legislation, no matter how reasonable, must be rejected out of hand. That may have been what many of its 4 million members wanted but it was not the thing to say only 90 minutes after a national minute of silence exactly one week after Newtown. That the presser ended with the group’s president calling for a national conversation but then adding that they would take no questions was just the icing on the cake of a public relations disaster.
As difficult as LaPierre’s task may have been, he failed to advance his group’s cause. It was too soon after Newtown for the NRA to resume its usual rhetoric, even if many of its arguments are sound. He did that cause far more harm by speaking than if he had chosen to stay silent.